Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remember with honour

On Tuesday 11 September 2001, I was lying in a hospital bed when I happened to switch on my radio, in time to hear Steve Wright delivering a newsflash on his show, on BBC Radio 2, that "another aeroplane has crashed into the World Trade Centre". As Sally Boazman read the travel report, which said that no civilian aeroplanes were taking off over the UK, my first reaction was, what a terrible accident! Would that it were so. One of the staff went off; I later found out she was trying to phone her son who lived in New York, but there was no transatlantic line available due to the unprecedented load.

As time went on it became clear that this was no accident, after another strike on the Pentagon and a crash in Pennsylvania following a passenger revolt. My thoughts travelled to an American friend of mine. An academic, anxious British lecturers had asked him to transfer to another university some time previously, as radical Muslim students had discovered that he had served in elite forces in the Middle East and were making trouble. He'd returned to the US.

The rest of the day was spent in a sort of dissociated confusion, as the BBC's James Robbins called the attacks "a new Pearl Harbor". The next day, the news announced that President Bush was consulting with his chiefs of staff as to what the response would be: what would come to be known as the War on Terror had begun. And so had the backlash, as Hindu and Sikh taxi-drivers were abused and assaulted.

Another, almost perverse, backlash had also begun. My friend, now back in the US, was told to discontinue a factual study of Bosnian Muslims who had joined the German Army during WWII, because it apparently gave a negative image of Islam. In Cambridgeshire, my daughter's primary-school class were taken to a Mosque as part of a "get to know Islam" campaign. She didn't get to know Islam very well, because of course girls aren't allowed to worship in the Mosque proper. She peppered her hosts with questions about why the boys were allowed to see more than the girls, and came away unsatisfied.

For me, that's how the new phase in modern history began. Many troops from America and Britain and other countries have since been dispatched to far-off lands, from which not all have returned, and still the terrorists plot. One, the bombs in London on July 7, 2005, killed 50 people and threw into chaos the G8 talks which, many had hoped, would make decisive moves in the fight against poverty in third-world countries. A trial of people accused of planning to down aircraft in flight with liquid explosives, that would leave from London in 2006, has just finished with three convictions and the Director of Public Prosecutions seeking a retrial in respect of those who were not found guilty.

On that day in 2001, three-thousand people from 90 countries died in the bombing of the Twin Towers, a number that is almost unimaginable outside of a war situation; and that's not counting the other fatalities -125 at the Pentagon and the 45 heroes of Flight 93. But war was just one of the multitude of things that started to change that day.

In the preface to the 9/11 Commission Report, the authors say: "We emerge from this investigation with enormous sympathy for the victims and their loved ones, and with enhanced respect for the American people." At the start of this new time, the Queen indicated that she knew where the focus of the free world lay, when she ordered that The Star Spangled Banner be played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

May the dead be remembered with honour.

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